Wrestling Hall of Fame honors Black History Month

STILLWATER, Okla. -- In 1949, two years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Harold Henson became the first African American athlete to compete in the NCAA Wrestling Championships. Six years earlier, however, he proved his toughness in the military, joining the U.S. Army.

In commemoration of Black History Month and it's new exhibit "Glory Beyond the Sport: Wrestling and the Military," the National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum is spotlighting Harold Henson in recognition of his achievements both in wrestling and in service to our country.

Henson, who learned to wrestle at San Diego High School in California, entered the Army in March of 1943, at the height of World War II, and was sent to Germany. There he met and married his wife of 62 years, Illse. At the time, military regulations required that Army personnel who married Germans leave the country.

Harold Henson
He left the Army in 1947 and returned to his native state to attend San Diego State University where he earned a spot on the wrestling team and an education degree. His ground-breaking participation in the NCAA Championships was at Ft. Collins, Colorado in 1949. He graduated from San Diego State in 1950.

"There were only two times I experienced racism directly connected to my wrestling career at San Diego," Henson recalled to RevWrestling's Mark Palmer in a 2008 interview. "Two restaurants refused to serve me and my brother. When this happened, our coach immediately took the team out of the restaurant.

"I never ran into any bigotry in all my wrestling experience. I don't recall any opponent forfeiting a match because of my skin color."

After graduation, Henson went back into the Army to serve in the Korean War and earn a Bronze Star for "doing his job."

He retired as a colonel in 1970 after 26 years of service with the Army Corps of Engineers, earning the Legion of Merit medal.

On February 11, the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum will unveil its new book and exhibit Glory Beyond the Sport: Wrestling and the Military.

"Harold Henson's story is just one of many among those who have distinguished themselves in service to our country and on the wrestling mat," said Lee Roy Smith, Executive Director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum. "This man is a hero. He was a trailblazer that broke down color barriers and took advantage of the opportunities provided him in sport and the military to get an education and become a leader."

Glory Beyond the Sport will be on display throughout the spring at the Hall of Fame. A traveling version of the exhibit will appear at the 2009 NCAA Wrestling Championships and at the 2009 U.S. National Wrestling Championships.

Those interested in more information about the book should telephone the Hall of Fame at (405) 377-5243 or visit the web site at


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